‘The Babadook’ Tackles Childhood Fears And More
The Perfect Holiday Gift For Horror Fans
Friday, December 19, 2014
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "The Babadook."
Companion Viewing (Women Helmed Horror Films)
“Near Dark” (directed by Kathryn Bigelow)
“American Psycho” (directed by Mary Harron)
“American Mary” (directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska)
“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (directed by Ana Lily Amirpour)
One night Amelia (Essie Davis) reads a story to her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman).
The book is called “Mr. Babadook” and it has ominous Dr. Caligari-like black and white illustrations that could give adults nightmares.
Amelia reads: “His name is Mr. Babadook and this is his book — see him in your room at night —does he live under the bed?”
Samuel takes the story to heart and believes Mr. Babadook is real. He bravely offers to smash the monster’s head to protect his mom. She insists Mr. Babadook is not real but Samuel warns that she will be scared when he comes to eat her insides out. Soon Samuel starts to blame everything that happens – like a ransacked basement – on the boogeyman-like monster. His obsession with the creature drives his mom to distraction, and she grows increasingly irritable with her son until strange things start to happen to her. She destroys the book and it turns back up on her doorstep. She gets a phone call and a voice eerily calls out: “Babadook — dook —dook — dook.”
The film “The Babadook” has all the trappings of a boogeyman thriller. It plays on our universal childhood fears of something lurking under the bed, in the closet, or out in the dark just beyond the night light. But writer/director Jennifer Kent turns this horror formula into something much creepier and emotionally more disturbing. Mr. Babadook (and the accompanying tropes about creatures under the bed and evil lurking in the house) serves as the MacGuffin in the film, it’s the thing around which the plot seems to revolve but it’s ultimately unimportant. What Kent’s film is really about is a damaged bond between a mother and her son.
Early on in the film, someone asks Samuel about his dad and he bluntly states that his dad is in the cemetery, he got killed in a car driving his mom to the hospital to have him. The death of the father/husband is not something that Amelia wants to deal with but it’s a hurt that is buried deep in her heart and colors her feelings toward her son. And Samuel is a child to test even a saintly mother’s patience. (Kent deserves kudos for allowing Wiseman to be one of the most aggravating kids ever put on the screen.) She accuses others of not liking Samuel but her sister throws that right back in her face and accuses Amelia of not being able to stand her own son.
As a parent, it’s disturbing to consider a situation where a mother can turn on her son and ask him why he can’t just be normal or why he can’t stop talking. It is scary when people who should care deeply for each other can’t because grief and repressed anger are in the way. The Babadook becomes a manifestation – perhaps real, perhaps imagined - of the dysfunctional relationship, and it gives Amelia and Samuel something to fight against instead of each other.
Kent’s film builds exquisite tension because we care about the characters, they are not merely stock teen characters waiting to be offed by a serial killer. We are emotionally invested in Amelia and Samuel and that keeps us far more engaged in the action. Kent also pays a keen eye to details. The Babadook book (which you can actually order) for one is a work of art in itself, beautifully rendered as a black and white pop-up book of fears. Kent also uses sound well. For instance, when Amelia is reading the book to Samuel at the beginning of the film there is an eerie ambience that stops when the book is shut and starts back up when the book is opened. It’s a subtle way to unnerve the audience as the book is being read.
Slight spoiler alert: without giving too much away I want to praise the way Kent chooses to end the film. What’s refreshing is what she doesn’t do. She doesn’t end with the kind of violent showdown where someone goes in to kill the monster but rather she acknowledges that monsters may always exist and all we can hope to do is tame them and control them. It’s a kind of maternal ending to what is typically a male (with the exception of the final girl) dominated genre behind and in front of the camera.
“The Babadook” (unrated by the MPAA but containing strong language and intense horror scenes) lures you in with the familiar childhood fears about something lurking under your bed but delivers something fresh and even surprising. So this holiday season treat yourself to a frightfully good cinematic present.
Here are the showtimes for "The Babadook." The Film Geeks at The Digital Gym Cinema (of which I am one of the volunteer geeks) will be presenting the film on Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. It will be followed on Friday night by "Batman Returns" and on Saturday night by "A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas."
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